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NEW YORK — Glamour, decadence and red-carpet frenzy fuel the Dolce & Gabbana image. But powering their way through a recent two-part New York tour, including gala events, a book party, a perfume launch and four trips to and from JFK, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana prove that their real lives may be glamorous, but they’re plenty strenuous, too.

This story first appeared in the November 4, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In fact, the designers’ arrival from Milan at two in the afternoon provides a seriously low-glamour moment. Gabbana, gray-faced and scowling, quit smoking three days before and has picked up a cold. Dolce has yet to visit Johnny at the St. Regis barber shop for a shave. Both face serious jet lag. “I am ti-red,” Gabbana mutters.

By eight o’clock the trash can in their hotel suite is brimming with empty cans of Red Bull, and the designers are feeling full-throttle fabulous. But it’s not just the caffeine, it’s Monica Bellucci, laced into a long vampish gown to present them with the GQ designers-of-the-year-award. “Oh, the way my body feels when I’m wearing their clothes!” she says, chest heaving, eyelashes fluttering as she practices her speech. They can’t take their eyes off of her.

“Like Sophia Loren, blow a kiss and say, ‘Thank you, America!’” begs Gabbana. Bellucci’s Mediterranean curves and confidence have provided Dolce and Gabbana with inspiration since the early days when she used to walk in their show. She smiles, bends towards the mirror to put on her lipstick, then wraps a shawl around her bare shoulders. Dolce delicately removes it with a “no, no, no,” cramming the offensive item into her purse. Though both designers travel with boyfriends, apparently the sight of Bellucci jiggling and giggling down the hall toward the elevator is one that no man can resist. Dolce delivers a resounding smack to her backside.

During both legs of their visit, the New York staffers, headed by Gabriella Forte, president of Dolce & Gabbana USA, shuttle their bosses from one appearance to the next, performing strategic maneuvers with flurries of cell phone calls, limo passes and event tickets, and overcoming logistical obstacles that might faze Donald Rumsfeld. The designers present themselves to banks of screeching paparazzi. They politely answer the same questions over and over again for reporters and struggle against the staggering fatigue of traveling back and forth between Milan and New York twice in one week.

Onstage at the Regency Wall Street, they accept their award from Bellucci with their own rendition of “Thank you, America,” and return to their table, where Famke Janssen awaits. They look pleased but dazed, slumping back into their chairs. But seeing a curvaceous star wrapped in their clothes always perks the designers up. When The Black Eyed Peas take the stage, the band’s bodacious budding diva, Fergie, dressed in D&G, gets them going. “She’s like a little Giselle,” sighs Dolce. “So carina.”

Dolce and Gabbana themselves are, of course, as famous as many of the stars they dress. Justin Timberlake weaves through the tables toward Gabbana after the show. “I’m playing a small club show in Italy,” he says. “Seriously, you guys have to let me hook you up with some tickets.”

The next morning in the Madison Avenue showroom, turned into a makeshift TV studio, the “Today” show’s Jill Rappaport nervously anticipates her introduction. “I always wear jeans on shoots,” she says. “But I thought I’d better not today.” She arranges herself in a chair facing their brocade thrones, zipping, then unzipping her leather jacket. As the designers enter, Dolce gives her a quick once over.

“Don’t be checking out my clothes!” she shrieks. “I saw that!” Do they like her look? They like her bag. “Ninety dollars! Flea market,” she beams.

“Bellissima,” says Dolce.

“So I’m OK?” she asks.

“You don’t make an error wearing black,” says Gabbana.

Though the average American viewer knows their names, as personalities, Dolce and Gabbana are still mysterious. Rappaport starts from scratch, asking questions not only about their new photo book, “Hollywood,” a tribute to all the stars they’ve dressed over the years, but also about the beginnings, 19 years ago, of the label that did $342.6 million in sales last year. The designers’ English is perfectly charming, if not quite perfect. Gabbana’s “fourth” sounds like “fud.” Dolce earnestly discusses “the glamour and the sexy.”

The duo’s big message during the trip, however, is a thank you to America — where their look caught on before it did in Italy — and to Hollywood, from the Fifties era actresses who inspired their early collections to Madonna, who gave them the Hollywood treatment when the designers traveled to Los Angeles to fit her for the “Girlie Show” tour in 1993.

“She asked us to do the fitting with the light out,” Gabbana tells a rapt Rappaport, explaining that the star’s eyes were tired. “There was only a little light from the end of the studio because we asked them to open the door.”

Dolce divulges Naomi Campbell’s capacity for damaging zippers. “She always breaks the dress,” he says.

“For me it’s lucky when she breaks the zip,” says Gabbana. “It means a good party.”

Another film crew sets up in the showroom, then another, before the designers make their escape, rushing to the airport exactly 24 hours after they arrived.

A week later, they return for the “Hollywood” launch at Bergdorf Goodman, and, well, if Naomi had been there, she would have busted her zipper for sure. Instead, J.Lo thrills the paparazzi and the mobs of guests outside on Fifth Avenue by sweeping into the store to pose with the designers, before sweeping right back out again. And what does the diva like about their clothes? “Sssexxy,” she hisses as her security guards pull her away.

It’s rare that New York’s socialites and stars come turned out so seductively to a store party, but they have all dressed in their Dolce & Gabbana best. “The suits are great for me,” says Neptunes heartthrob Pharell Williams, “but I love to see it on the girls.”

Without standing on ceremony, the designers find the center of the room, an inch deep in Mylar confetti, and brace themselves to meet any and all comers. They pose for photos with fans and happily greet both junior fashion editors and movie stars alike.

“I just can’t believe how famous they’ve become,” says Isabella Rossellini, pushing through the shoulder-to-shoulder throng. “I’ve known them for years, but come on. Usually this sort of excitement is reserved for film stars.”

And just what is it about their visit that causes such excitement?

Dianne Brill says the secret combination is “36-24-36.”

She’s not alone. “The thing about Dolce and Gabbana is that everything gets sucked in,” explains Gretchen Mol. “It’s very sexy, but it’s almost like you’re crossing over into too sexy.”

Later at Jojo, dinner conversation also occasionally crosses the line. ”This is to all the lovers!” says Dolce, raising his glass to wild whoops in the back room, where hot topics include movies, sex, razor burn, sex, Las Vegas and sex. The designers are in their element. “If I die, I go to Saint Pietro, and he says, ‘What did you do today?’” Dolce tells the table. “I say, ‘I went to the office, I followed the schedule.’ He says, ‘You stupido!’

“I’m sorry, Saint Pietro, Ms. Forte,” he continues, “but I have to live my life.”

Dolce also denies the reality of jet lag. “People say in Milan now it’s this many hours later, in Tokyo it’s this time,” he says, glaring at his diamond studded watch. “I say, ‘This is New York.’” The time in New York is 1 a.m. The waitresses are drooping, and the only part of the restaurant still lit is the back corner where Dolce is laughing in the face of fatigue.

The next day, Rena Sindi and Emilia Fanjul Pfeifler host a quieter affair, a lunch at Saks Fifth Avenue to celebrate the launch of Dolce & Gabbana’s perfume Sicily. When the designers arrive, the ladies shyly hang back. They’ve come just to get a look at these legends. “They’re superstars,” says Marjorie Raein. “I mean, they have Madonna on speed dial.”

Meanwhile, on the first floor, fans line up by the dozens, bottles of Sicily in hand. As the designers take their places behind a dais, the dedicated approach one by one to practice a bit of Italian and have their purchases signed. “I’m so nervous,” says Lindsay, an NYU student, peering up at the designers.

“Me, too,” says Gabbana, “Believe me.”

“I’d love to send you my portfolio,” says another girl with fashionable aspirations. They give her the address of the New York showroom.

Back at the St. Regis, during one of their few unharried moments, the designers explain their approach to fame. “We are not movie stars,” says Gabbana. “We live with a different attitude, without a bodyguard, without a driver, without black sunglasses. I prefer to spend my life like that. I know what I am.”

“This is our theory,” adds Dolce. “Some designers are untouchable, but without connecting with people, you don’t have energy, like when a DJ responds to how the people are dancing.”

By 7 p.m. the Red Bull is flowing freely in their hotel suite, as the designers and their dates get ready to bring another star into the fold: Lisa Marie Presley. They’ve never met her before, but she’s flown in from L.A. and has agreed to present them with a star award at the Fashion Group International gala. By eight, they’ve arrived at the Four Seasons to pick her up.

But an hour later she still isn’t dressed. Such is Hollywood. When the designers arrive at Cipriani at 42nd Street, where everyone is already seated for dinner, Demi Moore rushes to their table. “I have three daughters who are all discovering Dolce & Gabbana,” she says. “It’s passing on to the next generation.”

Her daughters aren’t the only ones. Presley finally arrives at 9:30 in a fringed dress and black leather jacket, her gorgeous 14-year-old daughter, Riley Keough, in tow, and they cause a sensation. “Dolce and Gabbana are renegades. That’s what I love about them,” Presley says. “Tonight my daughter said, ‘How good does it get? You actually have Dolce and Gabbana helping you get dressed!’”

Afterward, the whole troupe retires to “a bungle of eight,” as Gabbana calls it, or, as Dolce says, “boon-gala.” Winning the award was nice, but for Dolce and Gabbana, after all these years, adding a new star to their firmament still thrills. “To me, Lisa Marie is powerful, strong like Anna Magnani,” Dolce muses, offering his highest praise.

It’s 1 a.m., and as Presley and her daughter bounce around on the banquette, Dolce leaps to the dance floor. In Milan, it’s 7 a.m., in Tokyo it’s 3 p.m. — but these designers are running on Hollywood time.

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